A Short Piece

Explanations Are Not Evidence

Thoughts based on “Self-Delusion, the Toward-ness of Evidence, and the Paradox of Judgment” by O.G. Rose.

Photo by Michelle Ding

An explanation is not evidence. If there is a cup on a table, I could probably come up with a thousand (possible) explanations for how it got there (maybe more). At the end of the day though, only one explanation would be true. If I convinced you that you were obligated to investigate every plausible explanation, then in the name of truth, I would have convinced you to waste a lot of time.

Explanations are not evidence of a case merely by being compelling. If I come with a story that sounds plausible for how the cup got on the table (I say “Mom put it there”), then the very plausibility of the explanation can strike people as a reason to think that the explanation is true. But “plausibility” and “validity” are entirely different categories and share no necessary relationship.

Granted, I will not investigate a case for which there is no compelling explanation or theory, but the fact there is an explanation or theory means nothing more than that a possibility is present. Explanations and theories are arguable “cases,” and cases are the groundwork that make evidence possible at all, but explanations are not evidence in of themselves (only a prerequisite for the possibility of evidence). Without cases, phenomena cannot be turned into evidence “toward” those cases, but the fact that we possess a case doesn’t mean phenomena will be turned into evidence or “ought” to be turned into evidence.

We do not investigate mere explanations, for that would drive us crazy. Instead, we investigate explanations with evidence, or “evidence” for short (a fair shorthand, because it is impossible to have evidence without a case relative “to(ward)” which certain phenomena are evidence). Just because we hear something that sounds “plausible,” it does not follow that what we heard is therefore “likely true.”

It’s hard to believe, but there is no necessary relationship between plausibility and validity; in fact, what is true might be incredibly implausible (take the theory of the multiverse, and keep in mind that quantum mechanics at one time sounded crazy). But what if the case really sounds plausible? Then the person should be able to put forth evidence. If the person can’t, red flags should go off.

There is a radical difference between plausibility built on a story and plausibility build upon evidence. If the case presented to us is primarily “story-based” (please note I do not mean to suggest “story” is a simile for “fiction” — there can be “true stories”), then our obligation to investigate the case is much less than if the case present is primarily “evidence-based.”

Now, I don’t mean to say it’s all so simple, because what constitutes “evidence” is not always obvious, and there are different kinds of evidence, and we also have to define “good evidence” from “bad evidence” — these are complex topics explored throughout the works of O.G. Rose. Here, I only want to stress one point: explanations are not evidence.

Evidence entails explanation, but not every explanation entails evidence: “evidence” and “explanation” are distinct categories. If we investigate every explanation we encounter, then we are vulnerable to be taken advantage of, for all someone must do is come up with an explanation out of thin air (which a good storyteller can easily do), and then we will be sent off to investigate something, perhaps for years. And at that point, we’ll prove ourselves easy to control.

Knowing this stuff isn’t simple, this list might at least be a helpful guide:

1. Don’t forget that explanations are not evidence.

2. If we hear an explanation that strikes us as compelling for case x, we should immediately ask for falsifiable evidence. If this cannot be provided or we cannot readily find it, we should move on.

3. We should attempt to falsify evidence as quickly as we can.

4. If the evident stands to scrutiny, then we have reason to think that case x is true, and therefore should look for more evidence for case x, and repeat the process.

5. At this point, belief or disbelief in case x will be up to our judgment.

But what if not everything true is a thing for which there is evidence? But what if everything true isn’t falsifiable? This is taken up in “The Conflict of Mind,” and we can certainly encounter these situations, but we should first do everything in our power to avoid them by following the list above. If we are indeed in a “conflict of mind”-situation, then God help us, but let’s exercise all of our options first.




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